The great misunderstanding
This Naval History continues on from: "Armada Plight"
The Duke of Parma's Spanish forces were noted for their great achievements in battle. They were camped between Nieuport and Dunkirk, Parma's fleet of barges were devided between both of the ports. All were awaiting the arrival of the Armada.
Parma believed that the Armada was not a good idea, he could see unsurmountable problems with a sortie like that, he thought it would fail. He had outlined his own concerns and position clearly enough to the King, but not to the Duke, Medina
Sidonia, Captain General of the Armada.
Parma had written often in 1587, asking the King to change his mind and call off the Armada, and each time reminding him of his position. Then again in January 1588, he explaind to the King that his barges could not venture out on to the open sea unless the Armada were able to protect his troops from enemy warships.
The Duke, Medina Sidonia, had not been informed about Parma's position. As he understood the situation Parma would be arriving at sea on the appearance of the Armada. The Duke most probably assumed that Parma had his own fleet of warships, because of the notable successes achieved with his army in past engagements.
But the Duke was not alone in thinking Parma had his own fleet, for the English were also of the same opinion. Seymour's squadron had been blockading the seas of the western Scheldt for months to prevent the invincible commander Parma, reinforcing the Armada with his ships and formidable infantry.
Apprehension over Parma's Forces
Calais is less than thirty miles from Dunkirk. It was assumed the Parma and the Duke had probably been in touch, and that the Armada meant to ride at anchor until Parma was ready, and wind and weather served best.
The English captains had no clear notion of Parma's strength at sea; they did not know whether he could get his flotilla out, or how much it would complicate the task if he did, but it was not a risk they wanted to run.
If the present Spanish anchorage was unsafe theirs was no safer, and they felt sure that the lee shore on which they might be driven was an unfriendly one. Should the Calais authorities sympathise with the Spanish the Job would be much tougher.
Unknown to the English the French in this situation had an attitude of correct neutrality.
It seemed clear that the Armada had better be shifted before the Duke could concert his plans, either with the French Governor or with Parma. There was only one way to do it; with fire ships.
The newcomers, Lord Seymour and Sir William Wynter and Sir Henry Palmer, were as impressed by the Spanish fleets menacing strength anchored under Calais Cliffs as were the captains who had tried it. Nobody wanted to come to close quarters with the Spaniards, or thought it would not do much good to bombard them.
The Council agreed to the fire-ships.
Drake offered a ship of his own, the "Thomas" of Plymouth, of two hundred tons, and Hawkins one of his; and with mounting enthusiasm six more were recruited, the smallest of ninty tons. This would be a fleet of fire-ships worthy of the great Armada.
Not only were spars and rigging left, since the ships would bear down on the anchorage, it was hoped, under full sail, but all of the ships' guns were left double-shotted to go off when the fire made them hot enough, to add to the terror if not the destruction of the enemy. These fire-ships were hastily built
The Duke kept Parma informed daily, he had heard nothing in reply for weeks. He wrote; 'I am anchored here, two leagues from Calais with the enemy's fleet on my flank. They can cannonade me whenever they like, and I shall be unable to do them much harm in return. If you can send me fifty or forty flyboats of your
fleet I can, with their help, defend myself until you are ready to come out.'
Flyboats were those fast shallow-draught little ships-of-war with which, in the early days of the revolt of the Netherlands, the Sea Beggers had terrorized the Channel, and with which ever since the rebellious Dutch had commanded their coastal waters.
Flyboats were just what Parma lacked.
So far from being able to send forty or fifty to reinforce the Armada he could scarcely have sent a dozen, even if no one tried to prevent him. The fleet he had assebled at Dunkirk and Nieuport consisted almost entirely of canal boats, without masts or sails or guns.
They were flat-bottomed, double-ended, open-decked, barges for transporting cattle, Parma had enough for his infantry to cross to Margate, in the most favourable weather and with the men packed in like cattle.
The Duke had no notion that Parma was helpless to help him, even as late as Saturday 6th August. It seems strange that a principal element in 'the fatal misunderstanding which wrecked the campaign' was the Duke's refusal, to recognize the obvious. But whatever influenced his decisions, he shows no signs of panick.
Some historians have written to say the Duke was stupid not to recognize the obvious signs as they were presented to him. But the Duke was not a stupid man, far from it, he was chosen for his proven abilities by the King of Spain, who would have been given sound advice should he have choosen to use it.
The Duke's undertaking was to lead the Armada, which he was doing to the best of his ability with the resources available to him. Not once had he faultered in his commitment, or questioned his Orders. He was obediently serving his King and fulfilling his obligations to the limit.
In April 1587, Parma sent two emissaries to the King in Madrid, to urge that because of the difficulties of the Entrprize as it was planned, the Armada should be deferred. A truce with England should be concluded to give him a chance to seize Walcheren and the deep-water port of Flushing. Before the Armada set sail.
King Philip II, refused to defer the Armada
When Philip refused to change his plan one of Parma's emissaries said to the King: "Look, your Majesty, its going to be impossible for the Duke of Parma's ships ever to meet the Armada. The Spanish galleons draw between twenty-five or thirty feet of water, and around Dunkirk, they won't find that much water for several leagues."
"The enemy's ships draw so much less water, that they can safely place themselves in positions that will prevent anything from coming out of Dunkirk. So, since the reinforcements of the barges from Flanders will be unable to meet up with the Armada, which is the whole point of the enterprise, and would not be possible, why not give it up now and save much time and money?"
Of Course, Cabrera de Cordoba wrote some time after that and he may not have spoken as blunt or as presicely as that. It would be odd if someone had not told Philip the same thing, not once but several times.
Other things to were odd, Why didn't the Duke of Parma reveal, one-way-or-another his difficulties, and why should he give a misleading impression about his own naval forces, which allowed the Spanish Duke and his staff to draw false conclusions?
The implications were vague
King Philip II, must have had an accurate picture of Parma's weakness at sea. Why, in all of the communications, some giving advice or instructions, didn't the King mention the centre crucial dfficulty? He did warn his Captain-Genral to keep well off trecherous banks around Dunkirk, and Philip repeatedly told
him to rendezvous with Parma at sea, or meet him off the 'Cape of Margate.'
Since Queen Elizabeth I, had the Roman Catholic, Queen Mary Tudor, beheaded, Philip had wanted to turn all of the English into catholics. Pope Sixtus V had urged him to invade England and to spread the catholic faith, offering one million ducats after the very first Spanish soldier set foot on English soil.
The King one day saw a vision, where he ruled over everything, he believed it was his rightfull destiny, and precieved the Great Armada in glorious victory.
It was only the English galleons that Parma could not cope with. He had not heard mentioned the name of one single English ship lost, damaged or sunk by the great Armada, but he knew of some great Spanish ships that were missing or were seriously damaged from the squadrons of the fleet.
Parma was in a unique position where nobody had more valuable information about the lack of victualling and cannon balls than he did. Everyday he had received requests for one item or another, successive curriers arrived with a different tail to tell.
He alone outside the Armada had the exact picture of the results of the battles, and the state of the fleets victuals, and he knew how superior the English galleons were, he had every right to fear them.
If Parma was able to face the failuer of the Enterprise with a cool calmness, it may have been because he had foreseen long ago that it was doomed to defeat. Being a great tactician himself he would have understood many of the difficulties that needed to be overcome.
The Duke's first awareness of the catastrophe
On Sunday morning 7th August, bearing up to the fleet a little after daybreak came the pinnace, which the Duke had sent off two weeks before to announce to Parma that the Armada had reached Ushant, where the Channel sweeps into the Atlantic.
Parma had wrote that he was delighted by the safe arrival of the Armada and he promised in another six days everything would be ready. The messenger was questioned and explained: "When he left Dunkirk the night before there were no signs of Parma's activity."
"The ships that he had seen were unmanned, empty bottomed and without masts or spars or guns, and with no stores loaded." But still the Duke refused to believe the Enterprise was hopeless.
The Duke urged all ships that could to fill their water casks, he tried his hardest to borrow some round shot, but it was all in vain. He sent off a string of messengers to Parma, with arguments, and pleas and exhortations.
Ever since off Portland Bill, when he had the weather-advantage, he could not close with the English, he had been persuading himself all he needed for victory was a force of light fast ships, such as he believed Parma had. Sure if Parma could be convinced of this he would come out and together they would sweep the English from the seas.
Meanwhile the Duke had other anxirties
If the Egnlish began to cannonade him he would have few rounds for the galleons' great guns that he would scarcely dare to return their fire, and before long they would realize his helplessness and come in to ship-killing range. But this was
not his gravest danger.
He realised with the English to windward of him and a strong currant running towards the strait his tightly-packed anchorage was in the classic position for an attack by fire-ships.
Of all the dangers to a fleet of wooden ships, fire was the most dangerous; their sails, their tarry cordage, their sun-dried decks and spars could catch fire in a minute, and there was almost nothing about them that would not burn.
But the Duke had reason to fear worse than ordinary fire-ships. The king had warned him more than once that the English were preparing many strange fireworks and diabolical inventions. Hell-burners they were called.
The most terrible weapons ever used in warfare, invented by an Italian. They were actually fire-ships which were rather like enormous bombs, each capable of killing more men in one blast than might fall in a great battle.
Worrying about strange fireworks made the Duke see with some alarm, a number of ships joining Howard on Sunday afternoon. They were actually harmless victuallers. There was not much the Duke could do. He ordered out a screen of pinnaces equipped with grapnels to catch and tow away the fire-ships to the shore.
An attack by hell-burners was expected
Fire-ships were to be dealt with by the screen. Ships were not to shift their ground as long as the screen was doing its work. If some fire-ships got through they were to slip their cables and stand out to sea, and let them drift by on the current. This was the beginning of an anxious night.
Until nearly midnight nothing happened, and then lights appeared at the edge of the English fleet. Not lights, fires; two, then six, then eight of them moving forward rapidly and growing in brilliance until the watchers at the Spanish anchorage could see plainly eight tall ships with all sails billowing in the wind, and lines of fire beginning to run up their rigging.
The fire-ships seemed to maintain a perfect line, and to keep close together, the watchers could also see, black against the glare, the pinnaces of the screen closing in. This was a critical moment. The two fleets had anchored so close together that the pinnaces would have to work within gun-shot on the
These flaming monsters were not fishing-smacks, stuffed with brushwood and straw, to be fended off with oars. Getting a grapnel to hold on them, swinging them around and towing them on to the beach would be a feat of seamanship requiring nerve and brawn and split-second timing.
Apparently the first pair of pinnaces executed their manoeuvre smartly enough, for the next morning the charred ribs of two fire-ships lay smouldering well short of the Spanish anchorage; but, a few seconds later, just as the next pair of pinnaces came into position, the double-shotted guns fired, their shots
shooting over the water.
It was the extra recoil that sent up a fountain of sparks to be blown down amongst the boats. Startled, the pinnaces sheered off, there was a moment of tangled confusion; and in that moment the six remaining ships swept past and bore down on the anchored fleet, the sound of their exploding guns heard above the roar of the flames and the fountains of sparks shooting skywards. There could be no doubt. Here once more were the deadly hell-urners.
The formidable Spanish order breaks
When he saw that his screen had lost the fire-ships the Duke fired a gun, slipped his cables and stood out to sea close-hauled. This time, the fleet did not conform. Instead panic swept the crowded anchorage.
There had been too many stories about the hell-burners spread by too many veterans of the Flanders war. Most captains cut their cables and ran before the wind, scattering as if they were afraid of one another as much as the fire-ships.
The strong set of the current and the rising gale swept the whole disorderly ships out through the straits and on towards the sands of the Flemish coast.
The formidable Spanish order was broken at last.
When the blustery dawn broke just five ships of the great Armada remained in sight of each other. One of the galleasses, was rudderless and had something wrong with her mainmast, and her rigging was twisted, she was crawling along close to the shore like a wounded beetle.
Near Calais jetty the ribs of six fire-ships smouldered. They were not hell-burners after all.
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The English stayed at last nights anchorage
At day break with the sight of the disbandoned fleet before him Howard fired one of his guns, trumpets called the noise of victory across the waters of the Channel. Anchors were coming up , sails were being shaken out, and banners hoisted.
The whole naval force of England, one-hundred and fifty sail, all the Queen's galleons, as many more tall heavy-armed merchant ships and private men-of-war, and some five score smaller craft, the Grand Fleet if not in name was moving in for the kill.
The Duke had to decide at once what to do, it came easy to him, he was the commander. It was his duty to face the enemy, alone if need be, until his scattered command could be rallied. He weighed anchor and stood out defiantly in the straits. behind him came the other galleons, close-hauled under light sails.
As they made the open strait their pinnaces scudded away before the wind, sent to rally the scattered ships and order them back to support their admiral.
The scene at dawn changed Howards plans. The Spanish had scattered. Howard sent his other four squadrons to deal with the only Spanish galleons in sight. Sir Francis Drake led the squadrons, Howard led his own squadron to capture or destroy the great galleass.
That crippled monster, seeing the English line bearing down, scrambled towards the shelter of Calais Harbour. A fast ebbing tide, a heavy surf, no rudder and no knowledge of the contour of the beach, made escape, unlikely.
She lodged herself aground and quickly heeled over with her deck canting sharply inshore, she would never be in action again. The locals would now salvage everything, and anything they could put to good use.
Assured no-one would ever get her afloat again, Howard steered for the sound of the guns. Meanwhile the Duke and his tiny escort, moved through the straits and into the dark waters of the trecherous Norh Sea.
The continuation of this Naval History will be: "Armada Catastrophe"
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